Why I'm Drowning in Too Many Media Choices

Illustration by: Mattias Adolfsson

Ironically, an excess of film and TV options doesn't give more freedom.

The other day, I drove past one of my favorite restaurants, or at least the spot where that favorite restaurant used to stand. For years, Kate Mantilini was the go-to place for anyone trying to schedule a meeting between the east side of L.A. and Beverly Hills, and even more so for those attending screenings at the Academy’s Goldwyn Theater. It was perfectly located on the corner of Wilshire and Doheny; it was open into the wee hours; and the food wasn’t bad, either.

A waiter would hand you a menu the length of your arm, with so many options you hardly knew where to begin. Steak, chicken, pasta, shrimp. Vegan, vegetarian, pescatarian. It was all there, endless variations on a theme, and all you had to do was choose. Which left me in a quandary: I was paralyzed in the face of so many options. I’d ask the waiter for a recommendation, nod dutifully and ultimately pick something else. Strangely, I almost always ordered the same things: either the rosemary chicken sandwich or the angel-hair pasta, with French fries and ice cream. I got the things least likely to fail. There was comfort in the familiar, so I stuck with the tried and true.

Most of us are like that. We like our options limited, a handful at best, a dozen at most. For millennia, we’ve learned to think that way, using the fingers of both hands, rarely needing to expend the mental capacity to count anything bigger.

We’re unhappy with too many variations. They just add stress to our already over-burdened lives. Rather than add to our freedom, they give us a sense of drowning in excess. The best minds may assure us we want an infinity of options, but our reptilian brains know we want less.

Whole systems have fallen into place because of the limits of our imagination: We favor a form of democracy that lets us decide between two alternatives, and spurn more complex procedures that diffuse the possibilities.

And yet our media world is hurtling down a path based on the belief we’ll always demand more.

At any time, we have hundreds and even thousands of television programs streaming (or is it screaming?) our way, and assure ourselves this is all to the good. We have an embarrassment of riches, leaving us embarrassed that we can’t sample them all.

There are now 500 scripted dramas on the air, as everyone knows, not to mention an array of reality programs, talk shows and news. Most of us can’t name more than two or three dozen, and have only ever sat through a few.

It would take a month of nonstop viewing to watch them all, and that’s just the pilots, not whole seasons. Who has the time? Only the most addicted of binge-watchers would even contemplate gorging himself sick by plowing through each one.

Faced with such a surfeit, consciously or unconsciously we limit what we see. We strike all sorts of contenders off our lists without realizing we’ve done so. We skim over a title and a logline and move on. Most of what’s on the air, we never allow to penetrate our brains. There are entire channels and networks I’ve only landed on by accident, without pausing to consider them more.

We think we make thought-out decisions, but mostly they’re knee-jerk reactions. We’re living on autopilot, opting for whatever our limbic brain decides for us, so that our conscious minds don’t have to decide at all.

The streaming services know this. So rather than compel us to choose, they choose for us. Just like the programming executives who used to curate all our viewing in the days when there were only three major networks, the services do the same, using algorithms rather than people.

If you like one cop drama, they’ll give you a whole bunch; if you favor romance, they’ll provide you with as much sweet stuff as you can consume. They’re doing the thinking for us, so that we don’t have to do it for ourselves.

Which would be fine, if thinking was what it was all about. But rather than challenge us, their aim is to keep us happy. Rather than make us reconsider, they just want to reassure us with the same.

Once upon a time, we’d ponder our options. We’d sit through programs we didn’t necessarily want to watch because they were squeezed in between others that we did. We’d taste shows we might never have considered, because with only four or five options, there was nothing better to do.

Now we’re happy being spoon-fed, or choosing comfort food — because that’s all we really love. Why watch anything that doesn’t fit our worldview, when there are so many programs that do? Why sit through Fox News, when CNN and MSNBC and PBS can give us news the way we want to see it?

An excess of choice hasn’t broadened our palate, it’s narrowed it. If this were a restaurant, we might be careful of our diets. But it’s TV, so we stick to ice cream and fries.

For more Galloway on Film columns please see the archive.